(WJHL) — What started as a method of problem-solving during the pandemic has turned into setting priorities for legislation that will affect Northeast Tennessee education.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago, local superintendents from every Northeast Tennessee city and county school system in the Tri-Cities viewing area have been meeting twice a month, deciding together how best to help students and teachers in our region, not just their school district.
When it comes to addressing issues specific to education in Northeast Tennessee, the top leaders in our local school systems say they are better when united.
“When you care about kids, you care about kids in our entire region,” said Jeff Moorhouse, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools.
The director of Elizabethton City Schools, Richard VanHuss, agrees it is not just about any one school district.
“It’s not Elizabethton with 2,500 students, it’s the entire region with maybe 80,000 students, speaking with one voice,” VanHuss said.
The Niswonger Foundation in Greeneville partners with local schools and hosts these superintendent study council meetings. The foundation hopes it is a chance for them to voice shared concerns and advocate for local schools.
“I know that I am not alone. Certainly someone else in this group is probably dealing with the same challenge I am, and maybe they have seen a different solution that I have,” said Evelyn Rafalowski, director of schools for Sullivan County.
The meetings are needed in part because education is top of mind in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Lee and state lawmakers are working to restructure the way public education is funded for the first time in 30 years.
Superintendents in our region say by continuing to gather, they can send a unified message to the State Capitol about what matters in our region for educators and students.
“Coming together with a unified voice when you have a lot of people talking about the same topics it cuts through the noise and elevates that one particular topic,” Moorhouse said.
“To see the openness, that is not typical,” VanHuss added. “There is a certain level of competition, everyone wants to do well. What this group has realized is we can all do well. It’s not a competition for individual school systems. It’s about kids and we all care about kids in this region and across the whole state.”
These meetings have resulted in the creation of six key legislative priorities these school system leaders want lawmakers to hear.
The first is a timely one. It advocates for legislation providing flexibility for superintendents to switch to virtual learning days for their individual schools in case of inclement weather or other unanticipated emergencies, like outbreaks of COVID-19 that affect their staff and students.
“To quickly transition would be very helpful,” said Tracy McAbee, director of schools for Carter County.
Right now, he says schools are required to use their stockpile days off before they have this option.
“If we’ve got the technology now, got the computer for students to use, why should we use 13 days of them not being in school when we could be doing virtual learning?” McAbee said.
Second on the list is prioritizing local school board policy for student registration when it comes to transfer and tuition students.
Third, amending a law that these Northeast Tennessee school leaders say unfairly retains students in the third grade who do not meet certain reading benchmarks that they advocate are too restrictive.
Fourth, they want to allow students to access Tennessee Promise dollars while still in high school for dual enrollment purposes.
“If they have the ability to take more than 12 hours, that shouldn’t have to come out of their pocket,” Moorhouse said. “We want our students to be able to get as far as they can while still with us. We can provide supports that would allow them to transition successfully to post-secondary.”
Fifth, the superintendents want the proceeds from sports gambling in Tennessee to go to funding education, including establishing more Pre-K options in the state with this money.
“That needs to be coming to the K-12 space for any variety of uses in those sports betting dollars,” said Moorhouse.
Sixth and finally, they advocate for legislation to expand the recognition of the “Work Ethic Distinction” program statewide. This program awards students with “points” for developing certain career technical skills, giving them an advantage in the workforce. They say this has the potential to be a significant economic driver.
As lawmakers in Nashville continue to discuss how best to distribute funding for public education statewide, the Northeast Tennessee group of superintendents say they are calling for more local funding.